New York conversations

The family at the next table were stocking up enough food from the hotel breakfast buffet to last them for weeks. Admittedly it was a big family, three generations of them, but there wasn’t a square inch of space on their table that wasn’t covered in food. Every time a plate was emptied, the grandmother went back to the buffet to get a refill. None of the family members was overweight, and there was no way that they were going to eat all of the food they had piled onto their table. I guessed that at least half would be thrown away, if not more.

As I finished my coffee a businessman sat down at the table on the other side of me and started to tuck into a plate piled high with fruit: melons, pineapples, huge red strawberries and grapes. I estimated that he had more than a kilo of fruit on his plate. He saw me looking at him and smiled. “I am on a diet,” he explained. “I only have fruit for breakfast now.” I thought about telling him that fruit were carbohydrates and heavy in calories but he had already got up to fetch a pint glass of apple juice.

The grandmother walked past my table again with what could only be described as a bucket of scrambled eggs. She piled some of them onto her grandchildren’s plates, but they were more interested in the chocolate brownies that she had amassed earlier. The grandmother wasn’t eating anything; she was just making sure that her grandchildren were well looked after. I realised that she was expressing her love through food—and I thought once again how complex our relationship with food really is. Food is life and love, but it is also guilt and self-depravation.

The previous day I had dropped in to meet the editorial team at New Food Economy. The online magazine had recently run a series of articles about farmer suicides in the US. Farmers borrowed heavily the last time crop prices were high, and they had invested that money in new equipment and more land. With crop prices down again, farmers are now unable to meet their interest payments; as a result, farming now has the highest suicide rate of any profession in the US.

We discussed how low food prices mean that producers can’t cover their costs while at the same time they encourage consumers to overeat and throw away a large percentage of what they buy. While high food prices attract most attention from the media, the social and environmental costs of low food prices are always underestimated.

The next day I was talking with a Bloomberg journalist about how low food prices were impacting farmers, but she wasn’t impressed. “Maybe food prices are low in the US”, she told me, “but what about the currency effect? Russian wheat producers are doing just fine, as too are Brazilian soybean farmers. ”

She made another good point about low prices. “Perhaps,” she suggested, “the improvements in seed technology and farming practices—drones and the like—have reduced production costs while at the same time made crops more resistant to poor weather, pests and disease.

“Is it possible,” she asked, “that bad weather and disease has less impact on production now than in the past? It is possible that technology has taken some of the volatility out of the agricultural markets? If it has, then crop prices could stay lower for longer than in the past—especially if the US dollar stays high.”

Technology and innovation were the main subjects of conversation when I met a friend for lunch, but this time we focused on AI—artificial intelligence—and the way that the algorithmic funds (according to him) now dominate the futures markets.

“They are so secretive,” he told me, “none of my contacts know how they work. We all try to guess how they are programmed, and how they might react to, or to create, market moves, but it is impossible. Perhaps they change their trading strategies too quickly, or perhaps they have many variants of a particular trading strategy.”

“What about market fundamentals,” I asked him, “don’t they impact the markets?”

“Yes they do,” he replied. “Supply and demand will always drive medium and long term trends. But there currently aren’t any trends in these range-bound and over-supplied markets. For the moment I am just trying to survive. I call it “death by a thousand cuts”—all these tiny short-term moves just pick away at my equity. Algorithmic funds love these markets. And to be honest, they will probably also love trending markets. Perhaps computers are just better at trading than humans.”

My final business conversation of the trip was with another old friend in the business. I told him about the pessimism that I had encountered and he laughed. “It’s just that phase in the cycle,” he reassured me. “Cycles turn and when this one does farmers and traders will be able to make money again. It will then be the consumers’ turn to complain. The last time food prices increased, everyone blamed traders and speculators; no one blamed the poor weather or the preceding period of low prices that had driven farmers off their fields.

“Give it two years,” he laughed. “Traders and producers will once again be making money—and everyone will hate us. It’s been like that since the beginning of time, so you might as well get used to it!”

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